I’ll begin with a confession. Or maybe it’s a warning. I like playing with my kids. I don’t play with them every day, nor, consistently, every week. But when I do play with them things happen in my brain and body, positive things that counter the oppressive rigidity and repetition of adult life.
This happens through all kinds of play, including family-wide games of charades, pretending plants can talk and impromptu lip-sync and dance parties.
Parents, the same could be true for you.
There are a lot of bad reasons to play with your kids. It shouldn’t be about perfecting skill or achieving a particular outcome, which isn’t really play anyway. Or because you feel pressure to be a perfect parent and a perfect parent plays with their kids on a regular basis. Or because they asked you to, and you feel guilty saying “no.” Or because your kids can’t have fun without you. If that’s the case, maybe don’t play with your kids until they master the art of independent or sibling play.
But there are also the good reasons, often overlooked in leisure-phobic culture. Parent-child play, when it authentically appeals to the parent, and works for their schedule, can do grown-ups a lot of good.
Play isn’t any particular activity, so much as a “state of being,” explained psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown, founder and president of the National Institute for Play and author of “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.” It deeply engages us, and gives us pleasure, alters our sense of time and place, and the experience matters more than the outcome.
“Nature has designed us to play in a variety of ways,” he said. “We are built to play and are built by play.”
Play with kids can take many different shapes. It can be easily identifiable and include Legos, pretend, dress-up, sports, video games, board games or puzzles. Or it can be a playful approach to an activity that isn’t always thought of as playful: baking, gardening, watering the plants or washing the dogs. Or it’s spontaneous: making up funny songs in the car or goofing around having a pillow fight in bed on a Sunday morning.
All of this is highly personal. The parent-child relationship is made up of two individuals with a distinct set of personality traits and desires. The type of play and frequency of play that works in one family will probably look different than what works for another family.
Right now, each of my sons has a favorite way of playing with me.
My 4-year-old enjoys imagining that he is the dad and I am the baby. I lay down on the couch – yep! I don’t have to move – and he pretends to wash the dishes. Every so often I “interrupt” him with a problem that I, the baby, am having. I enjoy crafting the problems, which span from the sorrowful to absurd. (“I’m scared Daddy won’t come back from work.” “I think a glitter monster is going to cover me in slime.”) Even more, I adore hearing what solutions he comes up with to fix my problems. (“Don’t worry, baby, the glitter monster is really nice and will give you slime to play with. If it gets on you then you can take a bath!”)
My older son, age 8, and I enjoy making up stories together, which we sometimes do while walking the dog. We have also recently taken up roller-skating as a family, which, apart from my former-hockey-playing husband, involves a lot of goofy trial and error.
As children get older, play may look more like taking adventures together.
When Laurel Snyder’s kids were younger, she would play with them in more traditional and identifiable ways: Legos, sports and crafts. But now that they are teens, the play is less structured and more about cultivating shared experiences of surprise and wonder.
“Last summer, while in lockdown, we started taking late night walks. We would go out at midnight and walk down to a park near our house, explore and listen to the cicadas,” said Snyder, a children’s book author who believes that play is good for the creative process. Recently, she has been extolling the virtues of play for the creative process in a lecture for fellow children’s book authors.
“Without the pandemic, we would have never done that, but time was removed from our lives,” she said. “Once lockdown ended, and we could take a walk at a normal time, we discovered that we loved taking midnight walks. The world feels different at night.”
Adults need more play
Many adults have an unhealthy relationship with time. Our collective obsession with productivity, work and self-optimization have left us with this relentless feeling that we are always behind the ball, never getting enough done. Worse, many of us are convinced that this is the result of a character flaw rather than a societal or structural flaw.
We’ve forgotten the life-changing magic of leisure and play.
“Play forces us to ask ourselves: Who am I when I am not performing or earning? What does my brain do?” Snyder said. “It’s the opposite of commodified wellness. It’s what helps you disconnect, jump off the treadmill, and can help you stop shaming yourself for not being productive. For me, it’s about tapping back into that 8-year-old brain, because that is the last time I didn’t care about not being productive enough.”
Need another reason to play? It turns out that it’s good for you: Researchers have found that play can offset some of the anxiety of our never-enough-itus. Play can help us cope with stress and improve our overall well-being.
“Play for adults is absolutely necessary if you are going to have a feeling of optimism for the future and sustain mood elevation for a challenging and demanding life,” Brown said, adding that like sleep deprivation, play deprivation has long-term negative outcomes.
“I’ve studied play in depth for years, and I think it should be understood as a necessary public health mandate for kids and adults,” Brown said. “It is in our nature, preserved through evolution over time, and has a lot to do with our social survival as a species.” Play helps us feel connected to our communities and learn how to cooperate with one another.”
Brown thinks it’s possible for parents to unlock their long-repressed playful sides through play with their children – with a few caveats.
Parents might want to create some time for adult-only play, which will help them “cue into their own play nature, be free, and make room for the chaos and variety that is an important part of play.”
They also might want to make sure their children have the freedom and free time to make sure their kids are learning how to play on their own terms. This should happen without any heavy-handed direction, anxiety or expectations from parents or guardians.
Children are good at play
For those who desire more play, but just can’t shake their efficiency demons, a child can make the best teacher.
Psychologist Alison Gopnik is an expert on children’s development who has written a lot about the serious business that is play. “Play is the signature of childhood,” she wrote in her book “The Philosophical Baby.” “It’s a living, visible manifestation of imagination and learning in action.”
While playing, children rival the greatest scientists in their ability to generate hypothesis after hypothesis about, say, what can be done with a rubber ball. Those tiny brains are plastic and hungry, eager to understand the possibilities around them.
Gopnik further explores this idea in a 2020 academic paper. She argues that children are better explorers, or more likely to try out new ideas, whereas adults are better exploiters, or using one’s knowledge and experience to make the best decision.
“Adults who are faced with a changing social or physical environment may only be willing to make small local changes to the representations they have already learned and that support their actions and plans,” she wrote. “The young children of the next generation, in contrast, may be more willing to consider a variety of high-level schemes to explain the data they see, allowing them to eventually make broader and more accurate predictions.”
This journey from childhood inefficiency to adult efficiency has its benefits, but something can get lost in the process. Efficiency is how we make it through the day, but it is also how we get stuck in the day, the weeks, the years. It’s how we begin to feel like we are not living life, but life is living us.
Efficiency is also what our contemporary culture is obsessed with, making it all the harder to break free and return to our freewheeling, open-minded, exploratory selves.
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Will playing with your children fix all this? Probably not. But it can serve as a reminder that there is a part of us grown-ups that is capable of exploration, that longs to goof around and doesn’t view time exclusively as something that can easily be “wasted.”
Play with your children and you will be reminded that life is filled with possibilities. It’s a delight, but only if we manage, really manage, to let everything else – egos, worries and agendas – go.
Need some help getting started? Be inspired by the summer season to start to play or get specific with our 100 ways to play this summer.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.